Movie Review: Inception

August 26, 2010

In 16 words: Inception is a good movie slightly worsened by its belief that it is a great movie.

It could have been a great movie. It is certainly a good movie. Well constructed, interesting premise, a good puzzle-box. It could have been a great movie, if it had used its material wisely; but that would have required wanting to communicate something beyond befuddlement. I’ll explain what I mean by that. I’m not really going to talk about the plot of the movie, but only about a few of the characters and some general themes. Thus, the rest of this post shouldn’t have any spoilers in it.

The movie has two themes. The first it did a good job with, but did not emphasize nearly enough. The second, it reduced one understanding of the issue to a thirty-second monologue, and showed the other through a twist in the final scene that was  simultaneously predictable, frustrating, and meaningless. These two themes (and it shouldn’t be a spoiler to say this) are, (1) the nature of “inception,” i.e. “inspiration, and art’s role in it, and (2) the impossibility of knowing for sure whether this world is the “real” one.

The first of these themes is meta-artistic. Basically, the movie views art as sub-creation, and explores how powerful it is, how an imaginary world can be created, and how that world can impart an idea without the audience consciously realizing it. I found this aspect of the movie quite interesting, but underdeveloped. It really only shows up in the first half, and is then dropped in favor of the second theme, when they ought to have run concurrently throughout.

The basic premise of the movie is, shared dreaming is possible, and a certain class of criminal is often hired by evil corporations to go into rivals’ dreams and steal their ideas; oneiric corporate espionage. The main character, one of these thieves, is hired for a special job – not to steal an idea, but to plant one. To do so, he assembles a team of such dream-thieves, who have positions with names like “forger,” “chemist,” and “architect.” The architect is the one who actually creates the dream-world, and she must dream it in precise detail, enough to trick the target into thinking it is real, and must tailor it to fit the intended dream-scenario that will allow the implantation of the idea.

I say “she” because the main character, while he used to be a amazing architect, can no longer build, and must hire someone who has never been an architect before, never done anything illegal before, but has the potential to be a brilliant dream-builder. He selects a young female student for the task, and this woman becomes basically the embodiment of this meta-artistic theme. She is the brilliant young artist who is slightly wary of what her mentor intends to do, who is unsure of the morality of her artistic endeavor, who is unsure of the sanity of her mentor, but who is entranced by it, and must make art; art becomes her life.

On the other end of the spectrum is the main character’s wife, who was once a dream-weaver just like the young student, but who lost herself in the dreams and ended up dead. (I won’t elaborate to avoid spoilers.) This gives us an interesting set of characters to explore: the two female characters, representing art’s possibilities and its dangers, bracketing the main character, who was also once an artist, but who is simultaneously afraid to be a true artist and willing to use his art to lie, cheat, and steal in order to support himself. So far, so good.

But – in the second half of the movie, the meta-dramatic theme goes away, and the movie shifts to being about whether or not there is an objective reality. This, I think, was a mistake. The two themes are related, in that the ability to lose oneself  in a fictional world and believe it more important than the real world is indeed one of the dangers of art. But the movie did a quite poor job of integrating them. It allowed the epistemological uncertainty to dominate, and ignored the ethical uncertainty – and by doing so, it made itself unable to say anything substantial.

The problem is, the question “how can we tell a fake world from the real world?” has, when it comes down to it, only one answer: we can’t. There’s no way to be sure. And because it has only one, simple answer, it’s not that interesting a question. The more interesting question, which the movie almost asked, was, what makes the real world more real than an imagined world? What ethical obligations do we have to the worlds we imagine? And are those obligations in conflict with our ethical obligations in the real world? This should have been the theme of the movie. But it wasn’t, and it suffered for it – not only thematically, but personally.

The thing is, Christopher Nolan doesn’t do realism. He’s like Melville in this; his movies have one or two characters struggling with some Idea, a few more characters who can represent aspects of that idea, and the rest of the characters are one-dimensional, there just to fill in the plot holes. (Think about it: this applies to Memento, The Prestige, The Dark Knight… basically every Nolan film I’ve seen.) But Inception has no clear plan for the Idea he wants to work with, and so his characters fail as incarnations of ideas. This forces us to notice how really unrealistic so many of his characters are, and how the movie is really just an excuse to construct an elaborate plot involving multiple levels of dream, and we start to realize that there’s no greatness here, only cleverness…

And so we are left in the end, saying that Inception is just a clever movie, when if it had tackled its themes better it could have been great. If it had been content with being just clever, it might not have been that much better as a movie, and would have been thematically less interesting (so I probably wouldn’t be talking about it here), but it would certainly have been less… awkwardly constructed.


Thoughts on Blood Meridian

July 23, 2010

Cormac McCarthy’s epic 1985 novel Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West, contains shockingly detailed descriptions of gruesome acts of violence, and perhaps more disturbing than the violence itself is that by the end of the book the violence has become routine, and the reader barely notices. None of the novel’s characters are truly sympathetic, though some are less loathsome than others, and the plot consists of a band of scalp-hunters roaming around the American Southwest slaughtering people until they’re not doing it any more, a shoot-the-shaggy-dog story if there ever was one.

It’s also an amazing book. It’s like Moby-Dick, but more nihilistic, with whaling replaced by scalp-hunting, and Moby-Dick made a member of Ahab’s crew (i.e. Glanton’s gang) in the form of Judge Holden. The Judge is perhaps the most disturbing example of the sublime ever; a giant of a man, hairless, and pure white, he kills for pleasure and desires to possess all knowledge in the universe so that he can control (and destroy) the universe. To that end carries around a notebook in which he makes detailed scientific observations before destroying the things he is observing. He may be a pedophile. He claims that “War is god.” He seems some sort of Gnostic deity, though he cannot be traced back to any “atavistic egg.” Perhaps he represents Death. He is a skilled dancer.

I have a hard time saying more than this about the novel. This is partially because it’s so overwhelming on a first reading – it’s like Moby-Dick in this regard as well – that I am completely aware that I do not understand it, at all. The Judge is by far the most fascinating character, but the rest of the gang are interesting as well — the captain, the expriest, Toadvine, the Delawares (are they like Fedallah and his men?), the kid himself, who never receives a name. One gets the feeling each of them can be examined individually in much the same way as Ahab, Starbuck, Stubb, Flask, Queequeg, Tashtego, Dagoo, and Ishmael. But I have not done so yet.

I did wonder, while reading the book, whether or not Cormac McCarthy is capable of describing anything as being red without comparing it to fire or blood. It’s an effective descriptive technique, but every once in a while I sat back and said, really? Again? The sunset is bloodred. Is it ever any other color?

I’ve also read recently that there are plans to make it into a movie. Now, three of McCarthy’s books have already been filmed – All The Pretty Horses, No Country for Old  Men, and The Road – but those are children’s books compared to Blood Meridian. It would be completely impossible to show all the violence described in the book without getting an NC-17 rating. And omitting the violence somewhat defeats the point. So, to say the least, I’m skeptical, though I’m willing to give it a chance.

Cormac McCarthy’s epic 1985 novel Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West, contains shockingly detailed descriptions of gruesome acts of violence, and perhaps more disturbing than the violence itself is that by the end of the book the violence has become routine, and the reader barely notices. None of the novel’s characters are truly sympathetic, though some are less loathsome than others, and the plot consists of a band of scalp-hunters roaming around the American Southwest slaughtering people until they’re not doing it any more, a shoot-the-shaggy-dog story if there ever was one.

Winter I – Allegro non molto

January 9, 2010

It snowed here in Dallas on Christmas Eve. My brothers and I decided we had to do something to take advantage of the situation – but there wasn’t yet enough on the ground to have a snowball fight (that came later). So we put on trenchcoats, got out the toy guns (including a homemade model of an M16 rifle – that’s what I’m holding), and started filming stuff.

Then, as we were filming, we realized we had no characters, no story, really nothing except two guys in different color coats shooting at each other. So we decided, in lieu of trying to add those things, to make it a music video for Vivaldi’s Winter, the first movement: Allegro non molto. Because classical music, Weird Al, and the soundtrack to that Buffy the Vampire Slayer musical episode are the only things my family listens to.

Anyway, today, my brother finally finished editing it, and we uploaded it to youtube. For reasons, it’s not available in Germany.

James Cameron’s Avatar?

December 24, 2009

No, I haven’t seen it. I haven’t decided if I will or not.

But I have read a LOT of reviews of it – they’re everywhere, it seems. And pretty much everything I’ve read takes the approach of, “the plot’s mediocre, the characters are mediocre, whatever, but OMG TEH SPECIAL EFFEKTZ!” So it would be beautiful to see, I suppose. So?

Then today I ran across this op-ed piece in the NYT. It’s about pantheism in pop culture. Interesting stuff. There definitely is a current of pantheism running through movies like Star Wars, The Lion King, etc.

What I wonder, though, is exactly how misplaced that pantheism is. There’s a great line from Chesterton about pantheism:

For the obstinate reminder continued to occur: only the supernatural has taken a sane view of Nature. The essence of all pantheism, evolutionism, and modern cosmic religion is really this proposition: that Nature is our mother. Unfortunately, if you regard Nature as a mother, you discover that she is a step-mother. The main point of Christianity was this: that Nature is not our mother: Nature is our sister.

My question is, if Nature is our sister, does that really mean the pantheistic impulse is entirely flawed? I am wary of pantheism, but I am also wary of what I would call gnosticism – the rejection of the physical world entirely, saying that Nature is not only not our mother, she is not our sister either, she is rather our slave. If some Christians tend towards the former, some also tend towards the latter. But to be good Christians, we can do neither.

That’s why I don’t have a problem with movies like The Lion King – it is only about nature, not mankind, so it is not really pantheistic; it just provides an incomplete view of the world. Whereas with the Force in Star Wars, and other such belief systems, we find real pantheism. It is the latter that is dangerous, I think, not the former.

Anyway, has anyone seen Avatar? Does anyone think it’s worth seeing for reasons other than teh special effektz?

Movie Review: Sunshine

August 14, 2009

Yesterday I watched the movie Sunshine (2007). The basic premise is that the sun is dying (and that in only the year 2057! Though apparently there’s an unstated backstory that makes it slightly more plausible, though it’s still scientifically inaccurate), and humanity has to to try restart it. There was a failed attempt seven years ago to deliver a giant fusion bomb to the sun which would somehow fix it, but the spaceship Icarus I mysteriously disappeared, and now they’re launching the Icarus II to try again.

Such is the situation at the start of the movie. We see the eight crew members of the Icarus II, their differing personalities, and what it’s like for them to live isolated on a spaceship for over sixteen months with the fate of humanity resting on their shoulders. So far, so good. This is probably the best part of the movie, actually.

Then our heroes receive a distress beacon from the Icarus I, which has apparently not been destroyed, it’s just sitting out in space somewhere between Mercury’s orbit and the Sun. How this is possible, given that the sun has gravity and would suck the Icarus I right in unless it were in orbit, in which case they’d have really no way of pinpointing the location of the Icarus I in the first place. I might add here that apparently they plan (at first, anyway) to return alive from this mission, after going to the very surface of the sun. It doesn’t make much scientific sense – thus the merit of the movie is determined by whether the psychological insights it has are enough to excuse its scientific inanities.

Anyway, they then try to reach the Icarus I, stuff goes wrong, someone dies due to mistakes in calculations, they they reach the Icarus I but find nothing useful. They do, however, discover that the original reason the Icarus I failed was not machine or human error, but rather sabotage.

The movie goes downhill from here; the man who sabotaged the Icarus I (because he thought it was against the will of God) sneaks on board the Icarus II, kills some people, and tries to sabotage it, barely failing, and the entire crew burns to death as the Icarus II manages to restart the sun.

The most interesting thing about this second half is how scientific progress – restarting the sun – is contrasted with the crazy captain’s religious belief that God wants the sun to die, and it would be hubristic of mankind to try to restart it anyway. Specifically, I found interesting how it contrasts with the dying sun in Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun. There, religious belief is in fact centered on the idea that some day, the Conciliator will return and bring the New Sun, healing the world in the process, and this hopeful attitude is in contrast to the attitude of the established powers, who don’t want the New Sun to come because it will destroy the current order and bring chaos  – the new sun, when it finally arrives, raises the ocean levels greatly and thus drowns a great part of humanity.

Why would restarting the sun be opposed by religion in one of these worlds and supported by religion in another? The answer, I think, is in how the sun began to die in the first place. In the Book of the New Sun, the dying sun is a result of the natural decay of the star – the book takes place millions of years in the future, and the sun has been in its current state of decay for as long as anyone can remember. Sunshine, in contrast, is set in 2057; the sun would have been in full health as recently as 50 years ago, and its apparent death is brought about by a somewhat incomprehensible force. It is not a natural occurence, and religious believers might view it as an act of God, and thus something not to be fought.

So in a world where the sun dies naturally, in a fully predictable way, there is a religious desire for a rebirth, something that will break the natural order  of things. (The coming of the New Sun, in the BotNS, is often spoken of the same way we speak of Judgment Day). But in a world where the sun is destroyed by something unnatural, it is seen as an act of God, and fighting it is an act of blasphemy.

That’s an interesting idea, I think. It’s a pity Sunshine didn’t emphasize it more; the reasons behind the crazy captain’s religious belief was never fully explained, and that bugged me more than perhaps any other aspect of the movie.

As is, it’s a fun movie to watch, but certainly not the “best movie of 2007” as I heard some people call it. (I’d probably give that distinction to No Country for Old Men.) It’s just an entertaining movie that attempts more than it actually manages.

Talking Animals WTF?

May 30, 2009

A common motif in children’s movies (and books, for that matter) is that of talking animals. But not all talking animals are created equal. There are two different kinds of talking animals in children’s stories: the ones that have their own civilizations, and live basically independently from humans, versus the ones that coexist with humans and can even talk to them.

Of course, thesee two different kinds of talking animal stories have subgroups. Take the stories where there are only talking animals – no humans. (I include here stories where humans exist, but don’t play a big role, and there are no human characters or there are only a few minor human characters and they can’t understand the animals’ speech.)

One of my favorite kid’s movies of all time, The Lion King, has only animals as characters, and so in it the characters, while animals, are essentially human. Their animal natures don’t really have much effect other than to give an instant characterization: lions are royal and brave (generally speaking), monkeys are clever, hyenas are deceptive and ruthless, etc. But the characters themselves are basically human. The plot would make just as much sense with human characters, though the movie would be worse.

On the other hand, the book Watership Down (also one of my favorites) actually uses the fact that these are animals, not humans; the rabbits are very, well, rabbity, not very intelligent, not making very big plans, etc. There are humans, and how they endanger the rabbits is important, but the gulf between rabbit and human is so great that humans are essentially gods – they don’t care about rabbit society, and aren’t expected to. The humans can kill the rabbits if they want to, but just as often don’t care at all about them. The rabbits are the main characters, they aren’t humans though they have some human-like characteristics, and the humans are basically gods.

Now take those stories where there are both humans and talking animals, and the humans are, generally speaking, the main characters. This poses an interesting problem as to how to portray the animals. A common error, I think, is to present the animals as basically human, and to imply (through having some animals able to talk) that all animals are equal with humans. This just causes moral confusion.

I recently saw the movie Up (the reason for my making this post in the first place); in it, there are dogs with collars that make them talk basically like humans, and the plot centers on the main character trying to protect a bird (not even a talking bird!) from being captured (not killed, captured!) by the villain. Why exactly would it have been wrong for the bird to be captured and brought to America? I really have no idea. It makes no philosophical sense, I’d say. But emotionally, I think it had something to do with how the dogs were able to talk. This is my problem with stories with humans and talking animals where the talking animals are essentially human.

For an alternate kind of story with talking animals and talking humans, I have to turn to fairy-tales – the story of Cinderella, as told in the original German (Aschenputtel, which I read in German class once upon a time). In it, there are birds that help Cinderella out by giving her clothes, and who protect her by revealing her sisters as frauds (the sisters cut off their toes and heel so they can fit into the tiny shoe, and the birds call out “Ruckedidu Ruckedidu, Blut ist im Schuhe!”). They can talk, yes – but they’re not people. They don’t have personalities, per se. They’re basically nature embodied. We would be somewhat disconcerted if these birds died, because they can talk – they give us this link to nature, to understand what nature “wants”. But they don’t make us think that animals are human, or that we should feel bad when we kill a bird and eat it.

Hm. Interesting Tolkien connection; he talks about talking animals in his “On Fairy-Stories”, saying that the presence of talking animals was a clear sign that something was a fairy tale. It is, I’m pretty sure, this last kind of talking-to-animals (and not the animals-are-human kind!) that he was talking about. Anyway, good essay. Worth reading.

Book Review: No Country for Old Men

April 20, 2009

No Country for Old Men is one of my favorite movies. I recently read the book, by Cormac McCarthy, that the movie was based on. It was an interesting experience; normally one reads the book then watches the movie to compare the two, but more and more recently I’ve been watching the movie first then reading the book.

One result of this is I find it hard to look at the book as a book – I’m constantly comparing it to the movie, even though the book came first and stands on its own. Ah well.

Of course, there’s some things that a book can do that a movie can’t, and vice versa. The movie has cool fight scenes that don’t show up in the book; the book has a unique style of prose that works really well for what McCarthy is doing. It works for The Road, which I read a while ago, and it works for this. It would work horribly for, say, a romantic comedy. I’m not sure what to make of this.

But other than stuff like that, the book is really similar to the movie, which is another way of saying the movie does a good job of following the book. Every scene of the movie, pretty much, is from the book, and most scenes of the book show up in the movie. The only important exceptions that I can recall are a few of Sheriff Bell’s monologues and one of Anton Chigurh’s deterministic rants.

Of course, one of the reasons I loved the movie was the character of Anton Chigurh, so I found the slightly different way he was portrayed in the book somewhat interesting. Essentially, while in the movie he is portrayed as a straight determinist, he actually has something a bit more complex going on.

As far as I can tell, and I might be wrong, he clearly doesn’t really believe in free will, but he’s more of a fatalist than a scientific determinist. He thinks that your choices are determined by your personal characteristics, and so in any particular situation you can’t “change your mind”, but that what you do is still the result of who you are, and so you are still somewhat responsible for it. If, as we did in my Lit Trad III course, we look at things in personhood in terms of moira, ethos, and persona, Chigurh believes in only moira – but he still believes in personhood. He’d more of an ancient Greek fatalist than anything else, really.

So, NCfOM is well written, interesting, does some things the movie doesn’t… is it better than the movie? I honestly have a hard time saying it is. Each can do different things, but I don’t want to say the novel is per se a better narrative medium than the film, and it’s a damn good movie. And I’m not sure that what McCarthy is doing with the novel-specific aspects of his work – the prose style, the narratorial asides, etc – are important enough, that they manage things the movie simply could not. A book like Moby Dick would not work at all as a movie. Something like NCfOM, however, works nicely. And there is a power movies have that books do not – though vice versa, as well. So I don’t know.

In any case, both are good. I actually do think it’s worth it to both read the book and watch the movie. If you can only do one… watch the movie, because there are better books out there, but there’s not that many better movies out there. But do try to read some Cormac McCarthy at some point. He’s quickly turning into one of my favorite modern authors.

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